I am a big fan of Wikipedia’s List of Films Considered The Worst. A big part of that is finding “list of films considered the worst” an amusing phrase, but the other part is that it’s fascinating as an alternate path through the history of cinema. It’s so easy to think of film history through the lens of what’s successful – the rise of auteur directors in Hollywood in the late 1960s giving way to blockbusters after the popularity of Jaws and Star Wars, for example – that Wikipedia’s List of Films Considered The Worst feels like getting to see everything from a new angle. It’s got everything from B-movie trash and weird vanity projects to big-budget Hollywood flops and failed sequels that contradict everything in the preceding movie.
Some of the films on it, I’m sure, are unwatchable. Many are merely mediocre. But at least a few are misunderstood, unfairly maligned masterpieces. I am excited to watch pretty much any film on there that I’ve seen someone sincerely champion. I can’t wait to watch I Spit on Your Grave and Mommie Dearest and Showgirls. Martin Scorsese says The Exorcist II is good and I’m willing to roll those dice. The films that I love that are on that list are films that I love with all the fire in my belly, that I love all the more to make up for everyone who hated them. I think Heaven’s Gate is astonishingly beautiful and I will fight anyone who blames it for the death of director-driven Hollywood filmmaking. I think Freddy Got Fingered is a surrealist masterwork and hilarious besides.
And I fucking love Ishtar.
Elaine May was one half of a comedy duo with Mike Nichols up to 1961. Nichols, of course, went on to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate and about a million other films, many of them brilliant. May’s career has been more eclectic – actor, playwright, screenwriter – but she, too, became a film director. But by Ishtar’s release in 1987, she hadn’t directed a film in ten years. Her last film, Mikey and Nicky, had come in over a year late and almost four times over budget. I could imagine that making it hard for any director to get hired again, but it certainly didn’t help that May was one of the only women directing in Hollywood at the time.
In the decade that followed, May co-wrote Heaven Can Wait, co-directed by and starring Warren Beatty, and did a major uncredited rewrite on his film Reds, for which Beatty won an Oscar for Best Director. Beatty decided to produce a film for May to write and direct, giving her the chance for creative control that she’d never been allowed.
The film that resulted was Ishtar, one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, and one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.
Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke, an extraordinarily untalented song-writing duo who go to Morocco for a gig, and stumble into the centre of a Cold War conflict over the fictional nation of Ishtar. The film is a riff on the old Bing Crosby/Bob Hope Road To… pictures, but Beatty and Hoffman’s dynamic prefigures Dumb and Dumber less than a decade later. They’re both incredibly, delightfully, hilariously stupid, but each in his own idiosyncratic way. It would have been easy and obvious to cast some ex-SNL, ex-SCTV guys in these roles, but casting Beatty and Hoffman is a stroke of genius. They’re hysterically funny, and bring a completely different kind of energy to the film. It’s the ultimate in “I never would have thought of this but now I would never want it any other way” casting.
Beatty is brilliantly cast against type as Lyle – bumbling, nervous and a born follower – who looks up to Hoffman’s Chuck as if he’s a suave and cool musical genius. They try to pick up women, and Lyle – who, just to reiterate, is Warren Beatty – laments that things would be different if he had Chuck’s good looks: “l mean, you walk into a place like that and girls just want you. You know, you got that kind of face. Kind of mean-looking, but with character.” My favourite line: “And the way you walk, you can only do that with a small body.”
Chuck is, of course, an even more pathetic loser than Lyle, and with just as little musical talent. During a delightfully farcical suicide routine that I won’t spoil, Chuck asks if Lyle is disappointed that he’s not the kind of guy he thought he was. “Hey, it takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age. Don’t you understand that?” Lyle tells him, “Yeah, most guys would be ashamed, but you’ve got the guts to just say, ‘The hell with it.’ You say that you’d rather have nothing than settle for less.”
“l’ve never thought of it that way,” Chuck says.
Here’s the film’s opening scene:
There’s always that little bit of trepidation going into a Film Considered The Worst. Because it might be just as bad as everyone says! But Ishtar won me over before the end of the opening credits. My first laugh came 25 seconds in, when “Columbia Pictures Presents” was on-screen, and after hearing Lyle and Chuck trade ways to sing “telling the truth can be bad news” to each other, Lyle goes, “Telling the truth can be good news.” The risk of filling a movie with deliberately bad songs is huge – there are types of bad films that are enjoyable, but bad music is usually just annoying or unpleasant – but all of Rogers and Clarke’s songs somehow thread the needle of being incredibly bad and breathlessly funny. “It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my life,” songwriter Paul Williams said, “I’ve never had more fun on a picture, but I’ve never worked harder.”
I’m pretty sure ‘Dangerous Business’ is one of the funniest comedy songs yet recorded. It is, as Chuck says, as good as ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ any day of the week. There are so many funny details: “no-one will hire you in a rock and roll band” always gets me because “hired” is such a crazy word choice. But every song, even ones we only hear tiny fragments of, is a delight. I think about “give me a half-hour / like the last half-hour” almost every day. An agent advises them to sing over people’s songs: “Let me tell you what l told Tony Bennett. Sing songs people already know. That way, if they don’t like it, they’ll still have something to applaud.” These covers, too, are made hilarious through incompetence. Warren Beatty’s singing is so bad that I’m half-convinced that he must be a good singer in real life, because I cannot believe that anyone could have a natural singing voice that bad.
But I don’t want to reduce Ishtar to its songs. I laughed the whole way through it. Ishtar is a masterpiece of secretly-smart stupid comedy. Lyle and Chuck may be in way over their heads, but the film itself always knows what it’s doing. On their arrival in Ishtar, Chuck gives his passport to a mysterious woman (Isabelle Adjani), who turns out to be Shirra Assel, a leftist guerrilla in the movement to overthrow Ishtar’s despotic Emir. Chuck ends up becoming a mole for the CIA at the same time as Lyle is recruited by Shirra to help the guerrilla fighters, but they’re both too stupid to really have any grasp of what’s going on. There’s a great scene where they attempt to argue for “their side” by repeating talking points they’ve heard, but obviously don’t understand.
It’s a satire about American foreign policy, particularly in the Reagan era, but, like Chris Morris’s brilliant terrorist comedy Four Lions, it laser-focuses on getting its laughs of the characters and their situation. Shirra tells Lyle to ask Muhammad to buy a blind camel as a code word, but he actually buys a blind camel, and the reaction of the salesmen is gold. And then he has to cart around a blind camel for the rest of the movie. It never stops being funny, because it retreats into the background until you suddenly remember that holy shit, the blind camel is still there, and you laugh about it all over again.
Almost every bad review of Ishtar mentioned how much it cost. It was plagued with problems during production that disintegrated Beatty and May’s friendship, and its budget ballooned to 51 million dollars (in 1987 money). But who gives a shit, really? Judging a film through the lens of its cost, or its production problems, is at best extremely boring, and at worst a refusal to treat films as art. Watching Ishtar on its own terms, it reveals itself to be a silly, smart, blisteringly funny comedy.
The very last line of the film is Adjani’s, watching Rogers and Clarke perform: “l think they’re wonderful.”